It seemed like the natural thing to do. We still hadn’t seen enough scenery, and a leisurely ride in a sleeper between Seattle and Los Angeles with a break in the Bay Area sounded like a lot of fun and a good way to relax. (Do you need to relax when you’re retired?)
We left our hotel before rush hour for a short taxi ride to the carefully restored Amtrak station. Our train from Vancouver, BC, pulled up to the gates, a good-sized crowd loaded up, and at exactly the designated hour we departed downtown Seattle.
There is always the mystique that trains take you to scenic places – and often that is true – but in big cities, you frequently see things that have been carefully hidden: truck terminals, rows of box cars and tank cars, and hobo camps filled with crumpled sleeping bags, cardboard boxes, and plastic crates.
At the same time, it is interesting to look out at the panoramas of the city and scenes that you would miss from the freeway. Soon enough, the messiness of the city gives way to the countryside, with lush trees, hillsides of yellow-flowered shrubs, and fields in every imaginable shade of green.
We missed breakfast at the hotel, so we were looking forward to lunch in the dining car. The steward came by and gave us a slip of paper with our time to show up in the dining car. Then, at the appointed time, we heard an announcement that we should make our way to the dining car.
If you have never eaten in a dining car, there is a very fixed ritual, which the server will describe with a certain fatigue and indignation that must come from having done the same thing with thousands of past passengers. You sign your name and fill in the blanks for your car number and room. The server fills in everything else after you have chosen your meal.
Unlike Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, you should not anticipate fine dining. After all, the main reasons you take a train are the scenery and the leisurely pace. In fairness, though, the experience beats the current state of airline food (Is there such a thing any more?)
As is customary, we were seated with two strangers: one was a very pleasant middle-aged man who was on his way to help his niece celebrate her college graduation; the other was a college-aged young man who had absolutely no interest in engaging in conversation with old galoots. He wolfed down his sandwich as soon as it was delivered, mumbled something about how nice it was to meet us, and hastily beat an exit out the door.
We selected the sautéed chicken special. It came with a salad composed of the white ends of iceberg lettuce leaves (How did they manage to buy nothing but white ends?) and two cherry tomatoes that rolled around on the thin plastic plate with every lurch of the car, defying my best efforts to spear them with the little salad fork. The main dish was a breaded chicken breast that looked suspiciously like a chicken tender and had a similar taste. It was accompanied by a mound of mashed potatoes decorated with yet another cherry tomato. Dessert was a choice of cheesecake, cheesecake with strawberries, chocolate mousse, or ice cream. They all came in little plastic cups.
The food highlight of the day was a wine tasting in the parlour car mid-afternoon. It was very pleasant and cost only $7.50 per person. The steward gave everyone good pours of actually not-too-bad wine. Our experience was so good that we decided to change our dinner reservations from the dining car to the parlour car. That was a good choice because we got a table by ourselves, and the pepper steak was not too bad. Dessert choices were the same, but this time they were removed from the plastic cups and served on little plastic plates with the Amtrak logo.
Never mind. The scenery, especially in the Cascade Mountains was spectacular, and we stayed up, looking out the window until dark.
Then the car attendant made up our beds, and we settled in for the night. Sleeping was not too bad. We woke up with the train in the station at Sacramento. We dressed, went to breakfast in the parlour car, and sat in the comfortable chairs next to the tables, watching the scenery until it was time to get off th train in Emeryville.
The best food of the trip was a hamburger that our daughter prepared for lunch when we got to her apartment – mushrooms, Swiss cheese, bacon, arugula, shallots, and dill pickles. Good food at the end of an interesting trip.